Sunday, 5 June 2011

Elmer Booth - original gangster! Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

"The Musketeers of Pig Alley" is a 1912 short widely credited as the first gangster film. Written by DW Griffith along with Anita Loos, it is notable for the ground-breaking direction of the former and Elmer Booth's defining role of the gangster, The Snapper Kid.

This is a very controlled movie from Griffith with consistent use of space and place. Filmed using authentic New York locations, people go in and out of the Saloon and the adjoining tenement so often you soon know the place like your own back yard.

Most significantly, there's an early use of "follow focus" and some fabulous, famous, close ups of Snapper and the gang as they skulk around Pig Alley in pursuit of and being pursued by a rival gang.
Snapper isn't a plain and simple tough guy. He takes a shine to lovely Lillian Gish's character even though she rebuffs his advances - she's as tough as anyone in the Alley. This doesn't stop Snapper mugging her musician husband and taking the last of his money. It's dog eat dog on the Lower East Side.

But Snapper intervenes to stop Lillian ("The Little Lady") being drugged by a rival gang member at a local dance and sets off a war that results in a shoot out in the alley. During the confusion, the musician wrests his money back from Snapper as the bullets fly.

Snapper avoids capture and seeks sanctuary in the couple's apartment. In the end Lillian provides him with an alibi that saves him from arrest..."One good turn deserves another"! A surprisingly pragmatic conclusion given Mr Griffith's reputation for simplistic morality.
In this movie Elmer Booth creates the prototype for all the Cagneys, Rafts and even Bogarts to follow. His performance is marked by alert cunning and restless energy, hands stuffed in his jacket pocket, constantly checking his pistol and hyperventilating on his cigarette - he's just waiting for it all to go pop!

Sadly Elmer Booth was killed in a 1915 car crash at the age of just 32. Griffith had a big role for him planned for "Birth of a Nation" but we never got to see how big a star he could have become.

I watched this film twice today and I salute Elmer for his energy and craft! He woulda been a contender alright and has his place in film history.Musketeers is viewable in hazy youtube glory or in far more defined DVD on the Griffith compilation "Biograph Shorts: Griffith Masterworks", available from Amazon here.


  1. Love, love, love this film. Compared to other movies of the time, this is epic. The use of closeups is jarring in the best way. Great review!

    1. A belated thanks for your comments - this is a great burst of energy from Griffith and his stars. Gish is tremendous as is the unfortunate Mr Booth!

  2. I've been mesmerized by Elmer's performance ever since I first saw this movie. I did a lot of research trying to dig up more information on him - he was a little acting prodigy in his Catholic school in Los Angeles, had quite the theatrical career, was present during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and married (and presumably divorced since she remarried before his death) an Australian musical/operetta star. The death of their 2-year-old son made the Salt Lake City paper, where they were playing at the time. Lots of stuff that took years to dig up!

    1. Thanks very much for that - he really stands out in this film and it is such a shame he died so young. Sad that he had such tragedy in his life with his young son. A powerful performer who could have been a major star in any era!